Terra incognita

In charting the life of a rare-map thief, Miles Harvey stumbled upon ground rarely covered: the land of maps, their makers and their collectors

September 21, 2000|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Miles Harvey returned to the scene of the crime Tuesday afternoon.

He strolled out of a clattering downtown rain into the deep, grand silence of the Peabody Library. Then he seated himself at a long wooden table beneath the six-story skylight, surrounded by old books, just like the famous thief did in 1995.

The culprit on that December day was Gilbert Joseph Bland Jr., and his crime was the razoring of four 200-year-old maps from some of the Peabody's most valuable volumes. It was the final act of a slash-and-grab spree that crept virtually unnoticed through 18 other libraries in the United States and Canada, ending when a Peabody security guard literally chased down the 45-year-old Bland across the cobbled streets of Mount Vernon.

For Harvey, Bland's capture was only the beginning. Intrigued by a wire-service account of the case in his hometown Chicago newspaper, the journalist set out on a four-year quest that would leave him as drained as a malarial explorer just back from a treasure hunt.

In the manner of Christopher Columbus, Harvey never reached the shore he set out for. Bland ducked him at every turn, zealously guarding his privacy even as nearly 17 months' imprisonment came and went. But, as with Columbus, Harvey happened upon another land that proved just as vast and rewarding - the arcane and mysterious world of maps, their makers and their collectors.

"I began to wonder about notions of terra incognita," Harvey said, "and started to think that perhaps mapping an unknown life was comparable in some ways to mapping an unknown world, which is of course exactly what the people who made these maps - the cartographers and explorers - were doing. And that's when I realized that I was on a journey here, and began to sort of shift a little of the focus of the book to my journey."

The result of his work was published this month as "The Island of Lost Maps," a book that is partly an account of Harvey's search for Bland and partly an exploration of cartography and its devotees.

Harvey, 39, met at the Peabody for an interview Tuesday, a day in which the atmosphere was much as he described it on the day of Bland's visit, writing, "From the skylight a gray winter glow washed down over the room. The air was cool and still and fragrant with the faint perfume of old volumes. The place was silent, save for the hush of the ventilation system, the occasional click of footsteps against the marble floor, and the squeal of the old-fashioned elevator."

Witness to the crime

It was the noise of the elevator that day that caught the attention of a bored researcher, Jennifer Bryan, causing her to look up, then to glance Bland's way.

"There!" Harvey said during the interview, as the same elevator audibly lurched and hummed into motion. "You hear that? That's what drew Jennifer Bryan's attention. ... Bland was on the main floor, and she was opposite him [across the room]."

Her glance revealed an amazing sight. Bland was taking a page from a book. She'd been trained to spot this kind of behavior in her work at the reading room of the Maryland Historical Society. But, as Harvey said, Bland "was so quick and good that she wasn't sure she could believe her eyes. She just decided she was going to watch him, and he started getting very nervous."

The flustered Bland, with the four maps already folded into a red spiral notebook, took off, but a pursuing security guard eventually cornered him a few blocks away. The police arrived, but they were used to stronger fare - drug deals and murders - so they negotiated a quick solution that seemed apt enough at the time: Bland would pay $700 in cash to repair the damage he'd done, and the Peabody would let him go free.

In his haste Bland had left behind another notebook in the library containing a "hit list" of other maps in other libraries, and when Peabody officials found it they began to worry they'd released more than a one-time scoundrel.

They posted an alert on an Internet site for librarians, and within days the responses made it clear Bland had been a busy man.

He was later arrested and convicted on theft charges in other states.

Although he was uncooperative about revealing his thoughts and motivations, never once agreeing to an interview with Harvey, Bland could hardly have been more helpful in picking a place to get caught. Not only does the Peabody make a majestic setting, but its history also offered plenty of quirks and coincidences that helped stitch together Harvey's account.

For one thing, Bland's "hit list" contained the notation that he was seeking "Mills County Atlas of S.C." That would be the 1825 cartographic masterpiece "Atlas of the State of South Carolina" by Robert Mills, who just happened to be the guy who was the architect of Baltimore's Washington Monument, right outside the library's front door. Bland trotted past it just before his capture.

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